I read books on pedagogy because I want new teaching ideas, because I’m looking for new perspectives on teaching, and because I’m interested in emerging research in education and related fields as cognition and neurology. Frequently, books on teaching invigorate and inspire me. Sometimes they depress me. They almost always make me thoughtful and humble in the face of the enormous task and responsibility that we teachers have to educate our students.
In Sentipensante (Sensing/Thinking) Pedagogy: Educating for Wholeness, Social Justice, and Liberation (2009), Laura I. Rendón challenges and attempts to rework the foundation of our ideas about education. She looks at her own education and the way she teaches, asking questions about why teachers do what they do and what kinds of knowledge and experience we value. Rendón goes on to propose alternatives that she believes lead to more wholeness in our students, more satisfaction for teachers, and better results for society. She writes explicitly that the alternative pedagogy she espouses is not for everyone, yet I argue that even if you are not comfortable with every aspect of her ideas, the questions she raises and the answers she proposes are valuable for every teacher.
Rendón lists seven “agreements” on which traditional education is based:
- the agreement to privilege intellectual/rational knowing
- the agreement of separation
- the agreement of competition
- the agreement of perfection
- the agreement of monoculturalism
- the agreement to privilege outer work
- the agreement to avoid self-examination
Interrogating and exploring each of these agreements, Rendón deconstructs them. Clearly, these ideas are not the only foundation for education; Rendón argues that they frequently cause more harm than good. She discusses alternatives to these agreements: community, collaboration, spirituality, intuition, humanness, multiculturalism, and inner exploration are some of the words she proposes as part of the discussion.
Rendón also talks about the community/individual dichotomy, criticizing traditional education for privileging individual work, over community. I may be overstepping a little—but I think very little—when I say that she sees this emphasis as being responsible for many of society’s ills and as contributing to the achievement gap for many groups of students, students whose culture of origin teaches them to value community more than the individual. Cultures are, of course, not so simple; they are not focused only on individuals; nor are they solely focused on community, but are rather on some continuum in between. Cultures are also dynamic, changing their focus in response to social, political, and historical forces. Rendón is aware of this complexity and includes its as an aspect of her alternative pedagogy.
The fundamental dichotomy in the book is, as the title suggests, that of thinking versus feeling. Rendón tries to deconstruct that dichotomy, arguing that the distinction between them is less clear than many think. Recent research supports the idea that intuition, feelings, and other “non-rational” factors are an integral part of our cognitive processes. The integrative approach, breaking down the distinction between body and mind, is an important part of understanding how our students actually learn. Thus, Rendón’s pedagogy tries to sythesize and include all parts of our students’ humanity, as well as our own.
Rendón asks some important questions about the way we teach:
- What is the epistemological foundation and what the ontological assumptions underlying our pedagogies?
- What are the goals of our pedagogies?
- What are the strengths and limitations of our pedagogical models?
- Who is engaged by our pedagogies and what are the forms of engagement?
- What is the positionality of the instructor?
- What is the focus of the curriculum?
- What is the foundation of the classroom context?
- How are our pedagogies transformative and liberatory in nature?
- What are the spiritual elements of our pedagogies?
- What is our philosophy of assessment?
As I read these questions, I wonder how many of us, as teachers, ever ask ourselves such questions about our work. How many of us have a philosophy of teaching and education? Maybe it is many or most. But I know I benefited from thinking about these questions, whether I agree with Rendón’s answers or not.
Toward the book’s end Rendón raises another important question: “How do we work with those who resist and trivialize our work? Perhaps one answer is to let go of outcome.” I think there is wisdom in this. Working with our colleagues, who may not share our views about education, we are challenged to respect differences even as we fight for what we know is right. Sometimes it is necessary to acknowledge that someone you respect and admire does not view the work of educating students in the same light that you do. Changing people is rarely an effective strategy. It can be wiser to let such differences coexist. I believe this respectful acknowledgement is part of what Rendón is writing about in this section.
At the same time, “letting go of outcome” can be use as a reason not to invest too much in the effort for change. If letting go of outcome means we let go of responsibility, then this approach will not yield results. The status quo protects the status quo and will not change without organized, determined efforts for change.
Sentipensante challenges me to rethink my teaching, my relationships with my students, my scholarship, and my institution. It is about breathing room and taking a moment to recognize my students’ and my own humanity. Courage and perseverance are necessary to change one’s practice—let alone one’s institution—to include such space. Rendón’s book may start you on such a path.